“Play it Again, Dick,” first episode review

Why exactly am I writing this review? You know, I’m not really sure. It’s one of those things that has such a combination of instant fan base and niche market that if you’re interested in the show, you already know about it.

Via CWseed.com

Via CWseed.com

But it’s special in that this is the first time I’ve been more excited for the launch of a web series than anything playing on television. (Though there have been plenty of years when I’ve been excited for neither.) So the question becomes: Did the first episode live up to my expectations?

Short? Yup (eight minutes). Opportunity for self-promotion? Yup (it’s a “meta” show about fictionalized versions of the real actors, producers, and writers - of course there’s self-promotion going on). Lots of humor in the vein of “Party Down”? Yup. Completely enjoyable? Yup yup.

The only thing I was disappointed by: The New York Times promised me two episodes today. So far there’s only one. Sigh.

“Veronica Mars” fans should know – and of course, they already do know, though the reviewer over at NYTimes seemed put off by the discovery – that this doesn’t really feel like a continuation of that beloved show. Duh. Just duh.

It’s no accident that I mentioned “Party Down,” above, also by Rob Thomas and also featuring many VMars alum. That, like “Dick” is a sitcom, where “Mars” was a high-school noir. (Thomas wanted to put the emphasis on noir, whereas the networked wanted the emphasis on high school. By the end of season one they had their way, replacing “Philippa Marlowe, High School B—-” with the inferior but still much-loved “90210, Mystery Edition.”) Of course “Play It Again, Dick” will have more in common with the former.

To recap: Yes, it was good. Go watch it. And if you haven’t seen “Party Down” (and you’re OK with TV-MA language and sexuality that’s there for observational and philosophical reasons), you should do that, too.

A Path Forward on Gun Violence

There’s a video “public service announcement” making the rounds right now called “Demand a Plan to End Gun Violence” or, as Upworthy dubbed it, “They Packed More Pissed-Off Celebrities Than I Could Count Into A 1-Minute Video.” It is simply a number of celebrities saying names of mass shootings on U.S. soil and then saying “Demand a plan.”

Here’s the thing: There already is a plan. More than one. Wayne LaPierre wants more guns everywhere. John Oliver seems to want an Australian-style gun burning. A number of Democratic lawmakers want various cosmetic firearms features banned (and they got it from 1994 to 2004, when, as we know, no innocent person was killed with a firearm ever in the United States).

muzzHere’s the thing, though: We don’t need “a” plan. We need something that makes sense. Which, frankly, means we need to demand that both sides get together and talk things over like human beings. The NRA needs to stop being such a terrible bully, and a great many people – politicians, reporters, and average citizens – need to educate themselves on even the most basic terminology of guns so that the conversation can even happen. In short, we all need to behave more like this collection of Communists (and Reagan Democrats).

 

The Argument for More Guns

Even Wayne LaPierre is right twice a day, and here’s where: Gun violence is actually down as more guns hit the streets and more and more states allow people to carry concealed weapons legally. No, correlation does not equal causation. And no, concealed carry is not the only factor. Take Baltimore, where the murder rate plummeted when emergency medical technology converted massive numbers of (what would have been) yesterday’s murders into today’s attempted murders. But you know what? Bodymore, Murderland, as certain residents affectionately(?) call it, is not typical. It is the site of some of the strictest gun control in the nation (unconstitutionally so). In the nation at large, where concealed carry laws mean assailants don’t know who has legal means to return fire, the Department of Justice tells us that non-fatal firearm crimes declined 69 percent between 1993 and 2011. Or, put another way, they dropped even more precipitously than did firearm homicides.

Let me stress that again: Even though fewer people are actually buying guns than once did, the fact that a minority do so and carry them legally is enough to deter criminals from attacking those of you who don’t, and it doesn’t even produce a bump in accidental deaths. (If you follow that last link, you’ll see that it doesn’t actually get rid of crime – criminals just steal things when and where they don’t have to risk a confrontation. I’m more than OK with that.)

So yeah, gun violence in general is down. You know what’s up? The kind of mass shootings that make a big splash in the news. Which is presumably why only 12 percent of Americans think/know gun violence has markedly declined. Funny how these shootings happen in gun-free zones (schools, military bases, etc), where the shooter is guaranteed to have at least several minutes during which no ones fires back.

This is the great fallacy of gun-free zones: When you make it illegal to have a firearm at any given location, the people who care to follow the law will be unarmed; those who planned to commit felonies anyway will carry away. This is why I have great respect for Kansas’ unorthodox approach to gun-free zones. In many states, placing a “no guns” sign on the entrance to your premises makes it illegal to carry a firearm inside. But in Kansas, you have to go a step farther and use metal detectors and/or pat-down personnel to make it illegal. That is, you have to give legal gun owners some peace of mind that they aren’t the only ones unarmed.

Is it a perfect solution? No. The Washington Navy Yard has such security, but their shooter smuggled in a 30-inch-long shotgun for the second-deadliest military-base rampage to date. A motivated killer can and will smuggle whatever weapon he wants to use into whatever facility he so chooses. But the harder he has to work for it, the more likely he is to be caught before ending lives. And considering the idea that it probably (at the very least “arguably”) is an individual’s right to tell folks they can’t have a weapon on his property (however stupid it is to exercise that right), I think the Kansas model is an excellent compromise. May the rest of the nation take note.

 

Slaughter of the Innocents

But the rise of gun-free zones is by no means the only factor in increased mass shootings. There’s also the fact that pop culture has, for several decades now, been conditioning our kids with the same techniques militaries have always used to turn men into killers. (Please see Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing. All of it.) Why? Because it’s profitable. (And sometimes it just plain helps tell the story better. If you ever watched “Batman: The Animated Series,” you know that Batman and his pals avoided full-auto gunfire way too easily. It’s revealed in the commentary that the creators couldn’t use more-plausible handguns because of “repeatability.” Kids were more likely to get their mitts on handguns.) This is a culture problem: Americans need to stop being so lazy about teaching their kids right from wrong.

You know what does go up – and always will go up – with the number of people who own guns? The suicide rate.  Anybody who says otherwise just doesn’t know how suicide works. People who plan it out and get it done are a tiny minority. Most suicides happen when impulse and means converge on the same moment, as on a bridge. And someone who has a firearm always has the means, and it’s one that’s a lot easier to employ on impulse than most any other, both physically and psychologically.

Each suicide is its own tragedy, but this doesn’t mean people don’t have the right to own such a dangerous tool. It does mean that anyone who struggles with suicidal thoughts should be persuaded not to exercise that right.

A similar issue, and in my mind the best argument for gun control, is that of child deaths. A lot of kids die every year because an adult was irresponsible enough to leave a firearm somewhere it could be accessed. We need stiffer penalties for people who allow their kids to negligently die. And we need a gun culture that stigmatizes those behaviors (and a variety of other “gun-nut” stupidities).

And then there’s the fact that, while having gun-toting folks walking invisibly among us makes society as a whole safer from violent crime, those with the guns are less safe than the rest of us. If people know you own guns, some of them may break into your home to take them. If you end up in a threatening situation on the street and show your weapon, your chances of dying by that same weapon are pretty dang high. Its very presence escalates the situation. Hell, almost a tenth of law enforcement officers killed on duty are done in with their own hardware, and they attend many more seminars on that situation than do most concealed-carry holders.

 

The Argument for More Gun Control

Despite those very real pitfalls mentioned above, I do believe in more guns. The deterrent factor is real, as is the human right to own a weapon. But I also believe in a lot more gun control.

Ever heard that an unenforceable law is no law at all? There’s at least a measure of truth to that claim, which is why it’s so important that the NRA et al quit making it impossible to enforce gun laws.

We have some good ones: Convicted of a violent felony? (Or, well, any felony.) Illegal to buy a firearm. Declared insane? Illegal to buy a firearm. Which is why anyone with a Federal Firearms License (that is, a professional legal gun seller) must run the purchaser through a national check center to see if they are a felon or otherwise barred from buying guns.

But person-to-person sales are regulated on a state-by-state basis only, and plenty of states have no background-check requirements. That is, it’s still illegal to buy as a felon, but the seller has no way of knowing who is or isn’t one. It’s called the “gunshow loophole,” but it might as well be called the “Walmart parking lot loophole,” because that’s where a lot of gun sales go down.

There’s a really simple solution to this: Stipulate that person-to-person sales take place with the participation of an FFL-holder to run that cursory check. There could be designated booths for this at gun shows, and elsewhere folks could meet at the gun store and be charged a nominal fee. In fact, that’s exactly how the law works when it comes to shipping firearms to buyers across state lines. And before you get upset about the idea that the feds will use their database to come after your guns, let me point out that there is no such database.

Will there still be folks who ignore that law? Of course. But those of us who wish to abide by it will have alarm bells the next time we decide we want to get rid of a Glock and find that the prospective buyer wants to “avoid all that hassle.” Those looking to purchase weapons illegally, too, will have to worry that each attempt to persuade a potential seller to violate the law will net them a visit from the police. It is a hassle, but the peace of mind that comes with it is more than worth it.

Those who, like Antonin Scalia, say such a law is useless because some will get guns illegally anyway don’t seem to realize that this logic would nullify all laws. (Perhaps it has escaped Justice Scalia that laws against murder don’t actually prevent every murder.) And when The Firearms Blog points out that there’s a surge of homemade zipguns in Australia – seeking to refute the notion that “all guns start out legal ­before they become illegal (via theft or rogue dealers)” – they don’t seem to realize that this really only shows how effective gun control can be. Most of those weapons are pitiful single-shots, likely as dangerous to the user as any intended victim and completely useless past knife range. The fact that professional criminals are resorting to these speaks volumes.

And guess what: The vast majority of Americans want these background checks; it is only money from big gun companies flowing through the NRA and other lobby groups to lawmakers that keeps this from happening. Well, that and the NRA’s brilliance at subverting recall processes when lawmakers do follow the will of the people and the spirit of the law.

You know what else we should do on the gun-control front? License people to buy ammo. Seriously: When I walk into a store to buy a 50-count box of explosives, I should have to flash a card that says I’m old enough, have no violent felonies on my record, and have passed a test saying I know proper gun safety. It’s really that simple. We license people to use those deadly weapons called “cars;” let’s start doing it for the ones called “bullets.” The government’s stuck with the cleanup when we screw up with either, after all.

 

So There You Have It

Taking what makes sense from both sides, we can have a real path toward curbing gun violence – without infringing on basic rights. Sure there’s plenty more to debate in the details. (Ten-round mag-capacity limits? I’m not a fan, for a couple of reasons. But anyone who tells you it doesn’t matter because “mag changes are so fast” has no clue what a shooting looks like.) And we should have that debate, once we’ve agreed to strive for a framework that vilifies neither gun-toting wackjobs nor hairless liberal cowards.

A different kind of expanding bullet

It’s January, which means firearms manufacturers are trotting out their latest gadgets for the annual SHOT Show. (That stands for “Shooting, Hunting” and “Outdoor Trade,” or so I hear.) A friend texted me a week ago that Glock’s finally bringing out a single-stack in something other than .45, so I doubt anything else is in for much attention.

Still, when I saw the headline “Expanding Bullet Set for Display,” I did a double take at the sheer inanity of it. Expanding ammo, be it hollow points or soft points, has been around for a long time.

I was not expecting this:

Via Kit Up!

Via Kit Up!

Yes, that’s a round that expands to 14 inches in about 1/100th of a second past exiting the muzzle. Hardly mundane.

There’s only one thing to say to that.

Via Columbia Pictures.

Via Columbia Pictures.

Sam’s War

sam

Sam as she appeared in the series three premiere, “The French Drop.”

With the final (and this time they mean it, apparently) episode of “Foyle’s War” airing stateside in six days, it seems only appropriate to pay tribute to the show’s real star character. And, as writer/creator Anthony Horowitz revealed to the Mail some months ago, it’s all been about Sam Stewart.

That’s right. DCS Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) may get the title and the most screen time, but the show wouldn’t exist but for Norah FitzGerald, the WAAF driver who would later become Horowitz’s nanny and the inspiration for Samantha Stewart (played by Honeysuckle Weeks).

If you haven’t seen “Foyle’s War,” it’s a cozily paced mystery series set in WWII England. Foyle’s the taciturn Hastings police chief who’d rather be fighting the war than minding the home front, but who is also too philosophically moral to turn a blind eye the compromises being made in his district. Fleshing out the regular cast are Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), a detective sergeant who lost a leg in Norway, and Sam, the inquisitive Mechanised Transport Corps driver sent to aid the understaffed police force because the old-fashioned Foyle doesn’t drive.

Over the show’s eight seasons, Horowitz has seen to it that it’s been downright educational, with its scripts peeking around corners to reveal little-remembered – and, in some cases, little-known even at the time – aspects of The Good War. Added to that, it would be difficult not to develop affection for the understated characters brought so fully to life by Horowitz’s pen and the actors’ skills. And it’s all thanks to Norah FitzGerald.

“Fitzy used to tell me all these stories about her time in the war, to do with driving and drinking and young men,” Horowitz said. “She had a very happy war. I guess that’s where Foyle’s War began, with the memory of all these stories she told me.”

Firewater in space

The script came out of a drunken round robin in Oregon, and it’s… not bad. It’s a fairly standard parody that probably wouldn’t have made me laugh until acted out by drunk people. Which is exactly what happened, converting it into brilliant comedy. (Or at least something I willing watched several times, chuckling all the way.)

These must be some pretty skilled actors sober to nail the parody drunk, too.

Mr. Wilson’s next experiment should be to make a short with a drunk film crew.

Lanue on the economy

A good mess?

Our economy is a mess. We lucky U.S. nortes are a lot wealthier than folks in other countries, so it could be argued that, relatively speaking, we have a good economy. The fact remains that, good or no, it’s a mess.

It’s convoluted, and it doesn’t seem to be making many of us happy. As for the unhappiness out there, there are plenty of studies showing that a population’s overall satisfaction is less about how poor its average member is than about how unevenly that wealth is distributed. The guy who lives in South America who can’t afford a refrigerator or a car but who never meets anybody who can is generally going to be more satisfied with his financial situation than somebody with a decked out kitchen and an old jalopy who has to bump shoulders with people who get rid of big-screen TVs because of a couple of dead pixels. But we already figured that, right?

As for the convolution, a lot of that has to do with lawyers and regulations. To way oversimplify what all of you already know: The left has simple faith that regulations will protect the little guy from being taken advantage of, and the right has simple faith that regulations will just make everything run less smoothly. Instead of working together to make sure that regulations passed actually do help rather than hurt, they spend their time trying to step on each other’s toes. All the while, both sides are working to keep the lobbyists and lawyers happy – the lobbyists and lawyers who are paid big bucks to make sure that their bosses can get around whatever regulations are put into play.

The result? The little guy gets bogged down with extra regulations, while his jumbo-sized competitors – the ones who have the money to outsource the paperwork to the same legion of lobbying lawyers who shaped the legislative process – get a guided tour through all the loopholes that let them ignore the spirit of the law.

“Free” trade

But as much as I would like to see some effective, streamlined regulation going on – say, some accountability for the bankers playing Russian roulette with all that electronic currency floating around – I think some of the most fundamental ills with our economy boil down to trade.

Tariffs used to be a big deal in this country. Tariffs are basically hefty import taxes placed on goods from outside the country, and their purpose is simple: keep jobs inside the country when possible. Tariffs supplied the vast majority of the federal government’s revenues, too, until the income tax was introduced in the early 20th century.

Tariffs are the opposite of free trade, which for my purposes here, is simply the freedom to trade with whomever, wherever, without restrictions. (Okay, so embargoes are the real opposite of free trade.)

For the last hundred years, America’s government has been moving away from protectionism (using tariffs and other regs to protect local workers) and toward free trade, picking up more and more momentum as it’s done so. Economist and Reagan-adviser Milton Friedman made the case for free trade by equating a nation’s economy with a household: If you send less money out for more stuff, you have a net gain. In his eyes, protectionism put value on currency where it should have put value on goods: Gold coins and paper money are most valuable in that they can be traded for things we actually use, so keeping more money circulating here at home, when it could be buying more stuff by going overseas, was illogical.

The other major case for free trade is that it allows more competition, challenging local businesses to innovate so that everyone involved wins. If Detroit had started building cars that lasted as long their Japanese counterparts did in the 1980s, the reasoning goes, maybe the American car industry wouldn’t be dying. More Americans would have car-manufacturing jobs, and more people in more economic brackets would have working cars.

Service jobs and “Save money, live worse”

For several years now, I’ve been hearing more and more about how the U.S. needs to focus on raising its kids to do service jobs, rather than manufacturing. This is an admission, from all sides, that when it comes to manufacturing, we can’t compete with the international market. Any service job that can’t be handled via internet or phone, however, can’t be exported.

We can’t compete in manufacturing, with any level of innovation, because international competitors aren’t cutting prices through innovation. They’re cutting prices through serfdom. China’s minimum wage of 55 cents an hour is routinely ignored, and because many workers can’t afford to live elsewhere, much of their hourly wage goes back to the company for the room and board that looks suspiciously like something out of a Holocaust movie. (Here’s a case study in how Christian merchandise gets made over there.) But even if China’s labor laws stop being for show and start being enforced, do we really want our workers to compete for the right to get paid 55 cents an hour?

At the moment, Walmart’s slogan is “Save money, live better.” Considering that the money savings come from exporting jobs to China, that slogan epitomizes Milton Friedman’s economics. And, in a way, it’s working. Thanks in no small part to presidents Nixon and Clinton’s greeting Chinese imports with open arms, the average American has a lot more crap cluttering up his house. The net gain to our economy has been a lot of stuff. But it’s also helped make our economy top-heavy. Everything we buy puts money into the pockets of the big-wigs doing the importing, but very little of that money is sent back to us. When the money does come back, it’s for stocking the shelves at Walmart, not for building better blenders. Unemployment skyrockets, jobs go to people overseas who don’t actually get paid, and the unparalleled wealth of the United States gets more and more concentrated in the top two percent, the ones who are exporting the jobs to slaves.

Now, I’m not blaming the wealthy for our messed up economy. The nation as a whole has decided that the short-term payoff of a fancier microwave oven for less money trumps other considerations. Now, there is an increasing movement of young people who think the “cool” thing to drink is “fair trade” coffee they know was made for a living wage, and the cool thing to wear is fair-trade threads. God bless them for it. But the problem is so endemic to the American economy that I don’t see that as a fix. Unless I’m wrong, people will keep buying the cheaper stuff, not just out of selfishness but out of the belief that their voting dollars won’t make a difference because others will take the deal if they pass it up.

The solution?

I think the solution is simple. Whether we’ll ever get there or not… Well, I can hope.

There are two sides to the problem: First, exporting jobs to be done by serfs and slaves is wrecking our economy by creating a huge wealth gap that will eventually reduce us all to serfs and servants, yes. But second, and far more important, is the fact that by accepting these cheap goods, we are morally responsible for enslaving people around the world.

The simple solution is to stop it. And if we’re not going to do that as individuals, we have to do it as a collective. Which is kind of the point of a representative government: “We the people” have the option of setting the agenda and having it enforced from the top down. Self-imposed regulation, in its own way.

We need to pass a law that would simply say “We’re not taking goods that victimize other people or ourselves. Goods that are made by taking advantage of people are now illegal in this country.” And then we need to enforce it, either by setting up a government agency to investigate this stuff or letting the non-profits that would love to help more dog it for us. Stepping-stone bills like the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act have been introduced before, but they keep dying. This needs to stop.

We might have to live with the dead pixels in our TV screens for a few extra years, but it’ll be worth it.

Sorry.

My apologies for promising a series of political posts and then immediately going silent after just one. I had to deal with a friend’s minor medical emergency (minor in that it appears there will be no long-term effects), and then go on the road for a couple of days.

More posts are on their way, I promise. First, I need to get some sleep.

 

Lanue on socialism

Our government is fundamentally socialist.

I suppose I should discuss the term a little bit before launching into the main body of what I have to say. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of socialism says that it’s “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods,” and the second says that in a socialist system “there is no private property.” But that doesn’t seem to be what socialism means anymore.

Today, it seems I can’t go near a news outlet without hearing about how such-and-such policy is socialist, and such-and-such policy is never actually about taking away private ownership or putting production into the government’s hands. Our working, public definition of socialism has changed, for better or worse, leaving the official dictionary definition to the realm of full-on communism.

So here I go again:

Our government is fundamentally socialist.

I’m not talking about President Barack Obama. I’m not even talking strictly about the federal government. I’ll bet you that your local city and county governments are socialist at their core and have been for years.

Law-enforcement agencies like your local police department and sheriff’s office come to mind. Police are the most “establishment” of the public establishments, a bastion of good old-fashioned conservationism. But their mandate is to protect and serve. At the police department’s foundation is the idea that government exists for the people. That the people who are too weak to protect themselves physically and too poor to hire bodyguards have a fundamental right to protection from assault, theft, etc.

Police departments exist because our nation decided a long time ago that it believed in the redistribution of wealth in the form of fundamental services. If that’s your definition of socialism, and if you believe your tax dollars should fund police and that police should protect the poor as well as the rest of us, then the question of whether or not you’re a socialist has only one answer: You’re a socialist.

It may prove useful to keep that in mind the next time you hear a pundit calling some policy or other “socialism” and expecting it to be condemnation enough. Other questions remain, of course: How much socialism is a good thing? Is this policy intelligently executed socialism or is it as stupid as a bag of rocks? These are not just good questions, they’re important ones. They deserve good, honest, open-eared discussion. So let’s stop expecting the word “socialism” to end the discussion.

Lanue gets controversial

Here’s fair warning: I’m gonna do it.

I don’t often get political in public. Some of that’s because several gray-hair editors drilled it into me that reporters – I was one at the time – aren’t allowed to have open opinions. The rest of it is simply that I don’t like antagonizing people.

And make no mistake: When I get political, people feel antagonized. This is probably because I’m a “radical” in that I don’t see things through a conservative or a liberal lens. I’m not going to pick a side on an issue because the candidate whose public persona has been shaped to appeal to me has taken that side.

When I look at decisions that I, as one of the electorate, am supposed to help make, I try to look at them in terms of plain old right and wrong, not right and left. Maybe that’s why people seem so hacked off when I talk about politics: A lot of people in this country are so jaded by politics that they just won’t talk about it anymore, thus leaving the talking to the true believers of the two political wings. I’m no longer one of those true believers.

But as uncomfortable as talking politics makes those of us who see little hope coming from either side, politics is still important. If we don’t speak up about what we thinks needs to be happening, we leave all the power in others’ hands. That’s not what we were given a constitutional republic to do.

So over the next few days, I’m going to be posting about some of my political convictions. It’s going to be rather informal and general – I’m not going to give you a list of reasons so-and-so should run for president, for instance. There may be some criticism about how general I get, reducing major ideas to basic principles. But I think there’s a real need for “pop science” writing as well as in-depth journals, and that’s what I’ll be gunning for in the days that follow.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll enjoy it.

Tracking Hugh Laurie

It’s exactly three weeks until the great Hugh Laurie’s second album hits shelves. If you already have his first (which includes his phenomenal rendition of “St. James Infirmary Blues”) and can’t wait another 21 days for another tune, here’s a song that appears on neither album:

Or, if you’re pining for music from the 1980s, there’a always Laurie’s “America” (1989):

You could also try downloading the album from Warner Music UK, as it’s already dropped over there.